Fine Tuning Point of View (Mark Phillips)

Fine Tuning POV through Choosing a Perspective


Mark Phillips

One way to increase the power of your fiction is to limit the point of view (POV) by adopting a specific perspective. Seeing the action through the lens of a particular character can add emotional depth and immediacy that might otherwise be lacking. Or it can increase the distance between the reader and the action. Choosing a perspective can alter the theme of a story, turning tragedy into comedy or the commonplace into mythology.

Perspective is technically a slightly different concept than point of view. POV is about choosing first person, second person, third person limited, or third person omniscient. Skilled authors can play with these, say by switching between these points of view in alternate chapters. But if you choose anything other than the omniscient POV another choice immediately presents itself: to whom do we limit the perspective?

Try to imagine To Kill a Mockingbird told by Atticus Finch. It would be exceedingly difficult to achieve Harper Lee’s objectives from Atticus’ perspective. For one thing, it would be difficult for him to adequately portray his own heroism and nobility without seeming to be vainglorious. The novel’s satirical and critical examinations of the systemic racism, injustice, and seemingly arbitrary customs of a tradition-bound Southern town works best from the perspective of six-year-old Scout who questions everything.

Often the central character of a story is complex, mysterious, driven by atypical and powerful forces. He is as different from the common reader as possible. Even partially unravelling the central character’s mystery and personality will take an entire book of observations made by a far less complex everyman character with whom the reader can identify. To understand Sherlock Holmes, we need the bridge character of Watson. To understand Doctor Who we need his Companions. To come to grips with the grand movements and machinations of Middle Earththe awesome battles, the mystical plots, and the ironic twists of fate—we need witnesses who are closer to our own level. We need Hobbits. And if a Hobbit like Frodo becomes heroic and larger than life, we need a further step away to the perspective of the pragmatic Samwise Gamgee. Mythopoeic writing needs a surrogate for the reader who can bear witness to the awesome. The bridge identifier perspective becomes the paper and pinhole by which we can “see” the too bright Sun.

Tragedy is a particular form of mythopoeic writing that benefits from the offset perspective of a bridging identifier. We need Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to witness for us the unfolding tragedy. Nick gives us an objectifying distance. We who are incapable of being participants in the tragedy, being too cynical or too dispassionate, or just not capable of loving so strongly, have our function: to bear witness and to be appalled. Jay and Daisy are too swept up in the forces leading them to disaster to evaluate what is going on.

But perspective is a versatile tool. Sometimes we want the opposite effect, to bring us closer to what was originally myth, to make it more personal, as with John Gardner’s Grendel. The Beowulf myth told from the monster’s point of view allows Gardner to explore the nature of myth and storytelling from the inside out. In Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore tells the missing thirty years of Jesus’ life through the caustic wit of Jesus’ horny, pragmatic, but fiercely loyal friend, Biff. Humanizing the myth allows Moore to humorously explore the nature of our relationship with the divine while making issues of sacrifice, friendship, and loyalty all the more poignant.

Another good example of choosing perspective for comedic effect is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. It is Shakespeare’s Hamlet as seen through the perspective of two minor characters. As the main characters of Hamlet leave the stage, our characters emerge to give their unique take on the drama they inhabit, a drama they come to suspect is designed for their destruction. Just as Hamlet uses metatheatre to further his quest for vengeance, Stoppard uses metatheatre to comment on how everyday folk become disposable pawns in the arbitrary and senseless conflicts of their “betters,” in just the way that writers invent and cruelly use characters for their own artistic purposes.

Perspective can be used to allow us into the minds of characters very different from ourselves so that we can gain insight into their own unique forms of despair, triumph, and heroism. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Mark Haddon allows us to vicariously identify with an autistic narrator trying to cope with a mystery despite a vastly different way of perceiving and interacting with the world around him. In Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes allows us to experience the world from the perspective of a mentally challenged man who is given an experimental procedure that vastly boosts his IQ. He then makes us feel the tragedy of realizing that the effects are only temporary.

As a writer we must choose the POV and perspective that allows us to convey what we want as effectively as possible. Sometimes this means shifting the perspective away from the center of our tale to someone more peripheral and with whom the reader may more easily identify. Sometimes it means thrusting the reader into a perspective that he is uncomfortable occupying or that stretches his imagination around different ways of thinking and perceiving. If the story you are trying to tell is not working, consider a change of perspective. There may be some character at the edges of your story who will bring the whole drama into just the right focus.


1 Comment

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One response to “Fine Tuning Point of View (Mark Phillips)

  1. S.R.

    Wow. This article has given me a whole different perspective! For years, I’ve been a “sponge” reader. I simply dive into books, and soak them up. Recently I’ve tried to become more analytical. What makes a story work? What makes a character memorable? You have given some extremely useful examples…useful especially because these books are almost universally read. I found the concept of “bridge” characters very helpful… and I can apply it not only to reading and writing, but also to more intentionally experiencing the world through the eyes of a child (friends, nieces and nephews, and a grandchild on the way!).

    One challenge for me is to implement changing POV in a memoir, where there is only one character whose head is open to the reader – and 300 pages of one character’s experiences is a bit much. But now that I think about it, there are actually two POV’s… the POV of the younger self, the narrator, who was living the experiences, and the POV of the author, who has the advantage (we hope!) of the wisdom, maturity, distance and objectivity gained through the years in between those experiences and the reader’s present day. Using these two POV’s more intentionally could provide greater depth and variety in the writing, as well as potentially delivering a more purposeful and powerful message.

    Thanks, Mark, for yet another insightful article!

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